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VOODOO

As usual when writing against a historical background, it required an effort of will on my part not to wander off and write a book about voodoo. Like most religions, including Christianity, voodoo has been used and misused, criminalized and politicized, trivialized, glamorized, and sensationalized, used to manipulate people's emotions and pick people's pockets. None of this alters the fact that it was a lifeline of comfort for generations of people in pain. I have tried to write about it as it must have appeared to the people at the time of my story: blacks, whites, and the free colored who were a class and a culture separate from either.

Historically, voodoo evolved from the tribal religions of West Africa, a complex interlocking of ancestor worship, reverence for the spirits of nature, and an over arching belief in a single deity who works through the various spirits-the loa or lwa-to aid humankind. The thousands of men and women who were kidnapped and enslaved by their tribal enemies, and sold to the whites, carried with them only what they had in their minds and in their hearts: skill at their trades, love of family, a rich heritage of music, and stories of animals and spirits.

Among them were priests and herb doctors, priestesses and midwives, who carried the gods of their homeland, and the ways in which these gods might be petitioned for help-an invaluable treasure to people who needed help as desperately as any in the history of humankind. As with most matters under slavery, how individual Africans or groups of Africans fared vis-avis religion depended largely on the personality and outlook of the indi vidual white master. Many owners did not bother to convert their slaves to Christianity or were content with token baptism; others insisted on the show of belief. Given the brevity of the average slave's survival on a New World cane plantation, it may not have seemed worth the trouble. Anything that smacked of religious or any other organization among the slaves was, of course, severely punished, so the worship of the loa-always more or less a come-as-you-are, make-it-up-as-you-go-along proposition anyway-went underground, taking different forms, depending on where most of the slaves in any particular locale had come from and how strict a watch the local whites kept. It became a common practice to identify Christian saints with loa, either as a way to fool the whites while keeping integrity with one's own beliefs or out of instinctive syncretism, the belief that they really were the same entity by different names: like lenses of the same color, filtering the same Light.

In writing about voodoo in New Orleans in the middle 1830s, I have tried to extrapolate backward from the modern forms of voodoo found in Haiti and New Orleans. Even before the black revolution of 1804-in which it played a significant part-voodoo in Haiti was enormously strong, and remains close to its original African elements. Spellings and names of the loa vary in different accounts. Spirits and gods from several different African cultures were incorporated and, at different places and different times, Native American spirits (or what second-generation Africans perceived to be Native American spirits) as well. In most cases I have simplified and have used the modern Haitian spellings, names, and identification of the loa. Reading nineteenth- or early-twentieth-century accounts of New Orleans voodoo-for the most part white finger-pointing at "barbaric superstition"-elements in common are clear: the priest and priestess (Hougan and Mambo, King and Queen), the worship of the serpent, animal sacrifice, dancing, possession by the loa in the course of the dance. Most agree that the loa like alcohol and tobacco-in fact, the loa like most of the things that people like: food, candy, bright colors, lights, pretty things, money, something to smoke. Voodoo altars are fantastic (and weirdly beautiful) accretions of whatever speaks to the worshiper of God or the gods, items dedicated to whichever loa is honored by that particular altar: Ezili likes certain types of perfume, the Guede-the dark loa-like symbols of power and death. (I've seen a black plastic statue of Darth Vader on one such altar, and it's hard to see how that symbol of intergalactic power and evil could be considered out of place.) Voodoo, both old and modern, is very much a religion of this world, of God or the gods acting in this world to help people attain success, health, help, or protection from a capricious and arbitrary universe.

Most accounts of New Orleans voodoo add that sexual excesses followed hard upon the dancing. This may be projection by whites who feared a more sexually liberated culture. But anyone who has gone to nightclubs and parties will be aware that the presence of loa is not required to connect the one with the other, particularly if this is the only time most of these people (a) get to see each other and (b) are able to enjoy a few hours in which they can forget they're someone else's property and aren't on call for some kind of work.

Voodoo has such an alien appearance to Westerners that, inevitably, it acquired an astonishing veneer of bizarre connotations. Nineteenth-century Christians re garded it as Devil worship (read nineteenth-century authors on the subject of the Buddhism of Chinese coolies working on the railroads and the Hinduism of most of the population of British India). Many French Creoles, brought up side by side with voodoo, went regularly to its practitioners for charms and gris-gris, something that would have deeply saddened their confessors but not surprised them. In the latter part of the century, halfunderstood practices coupled with the racism inherent in yellow journalism made voodoo a fertile source of sensationalistic plot elements in dime novels: zombies and voodoo dolls (and let's not forget those sexually degenerate dances) became staples of cheap thrillers, both printed and cinematic. Hoodoo African-style sorcery and herbalism-was seen as part of the voodoo religion, although the closeness of the connection varied from place to place and from time to time.

In fact, the practice of voodoo varies even today. Some practitioners do it one way, some do it another, not to mention the plethora of tourist voodoo and of fakes and cheats to rip off the unwary and credulous. Even in Haiti, where voodoo is more or less an organized faith, it is a patchwork of personal interpretations of gods, rites, and emphasis.

All of the above-and the fact that nobody attempted anything remotely resembling an organized and unprejudiced study of voodoo until almost a hundred years after my story takes place-make it extremely difficult to present a picture of what voodoo was, or must have been like, in the summer of 1834.

I've done the best I can. I've tried to remain true to what sincere practitioners of voodoo have told me about ceremony and possession, but I am sure there are others who do it very differently. Excellent books exist about the history, and the current practices, both of voodoo as a religion and about African sorcery. There are voodoo shops-or shops catering to Santeria and other West African-based New World religions-in most big cities of the Western Hemisphere, and large segments of the population follow the practices of these faiths.

Likewise, it is difficult to get any kind of straight story about Marie Laveau-and the fact that her daughter was also named Marie Laveau, and also became "Voodoo Queen" of New Orleans (leading to tales of eternal youthfulness) does not make investigation any easier. My goal, as always, has been simply to entertain without doing violence to the truth of former times. One can buy voodoo candles in nearly any supermarket or drugstore in New Orleans, and the priests of the Church of Our Lady of Guadeloupe-formerly the mortuary Chapel of St. Antoine-still regularly find slices of pound cake or bits of money at the feet of a certain statue in the back of the church.


TWENTY-FIVE | Graveyard Dust | CREOLES



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